The Community Garden movement is sweeping the nation. For Americans nationwide who do not have the space to farm at home, community plots offer an accessible way to produce local healthy foods. Upon becoming a board member of the Benicia Community Garden Project, a first goal has been to increase participation so that all community beds stay in production year-round. The pleasure of late season homegrown heirloom tomatoes often follows with beds abandoned after the last tomato harvest. For many members the Spring through Autumn growing season is the sole focus of their garden bed. Therein lies the opportunity to communicate as a community and utilize the beds that lie fallow for half of the year. For those of us who fall into this pattern, this article is aimed to broaden our approach to community garden plots and thus, Think Outside of the Box.
One of the ways that Permaculture designs to maximize productivity in a given growing area is to observe the path of the sun. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, southern exposure is the important aperture for growing sun loving plants. I recommend sitting at your garden plot one free day with a compass and a book to experience first-hand where are South, East and West. By building a vertical lattice on the Northern edge, solar reception to the bed is maximized. This also creates a windbreak in the garden. Granted, one raised bed does not break much wind. However, if all thirty community plots did this, the wind would lessen greatly as it passes through the garden. By designing so that the tallest crops *(ie: corn, sunflower, Jerusalem artichokes, fava neans) are to the North and that short herbs and ground covers are to the southern edge of each garden bed, we create an amphitheater of plant growth that maximizes the solar reception of the space. In small spaces, growing vertically greatly increases productivity. Note: in building a trellis for peas on your northern edge, be sure to check that your trellis does not create a shade zone for your neighbor to the North.
Another question to ask is; “How can we utilize the margins?” Our main crops take up the majority of each coveted plot of real estate. That said, chances are there are small areas of bare soil around the edges of the box as well as in the understory. I recommend planting cucumber and squash at these box edges so as to allow them to trail over the sides and spread in the gaps between garden boxes. In our community garden we have a thick mulch down in all the pathways. The cucumbers love reaching out over this mulch, while rooted only in a small corner of the raised beds. I plant sugar snaps and snow peas similarly around the edges of the garden beds. Another under-utilized margin that can actualize a yield is the understory. I like to plant radish and turnips underneath larger crops such as kale and collard greens. These root crops will tolerate the light shade understory. In hot growing climates, the shade creates a cooler-season environment for the root crops. A third option for Thinking Outside the Box is to discuss as a community what fringe areas of the garden could be planted for pollinators. By planting insectary areas for pollinators adjacent to our garden beds, we foster pollination and encourage Integrated Pest Management (I.P.M.).
One of the key components to organic farming is the building of healthy soil tilth. This can be achieved by cover cropping with favaceous plants *(plant of the bean family). Although some community garden members are only focused on their tomatoes for half of the year, by cover cropping we can protect the soil from winter conditions and turn in the bean family carcasses to continue to build fluffy soil texture.
I ask permission from other members to allow me to seed Bush Beans and Scarlett Runner Beans in the summer in empty plots, and fava beans and snow peas in the winter. By saving seed from the previous season, we can seed fallow areas affordably and create surplus for our community. A further way to act in community is to pool resources to purchase seed stock in bulk. I recommend ordering from Peaceful Valley Catalog to order fava bean seed by the 1/2 pound.
In empty garden beds in November, I direct sow fava beans four to six inches apart. In January, 60 days later, I return and “chop and drop” the growth. I leave the roots in the ground and chop up the whole fava plants into six-inch pieces. I then dig a shallow trench in the bed and bury the chopped fava pieces. I cover them and direct sow a second time fava beans and/or snow peas. Another 60 days brings us to March. For warmer climates like here in the Bay Area of California, I can now do a second “chop and drop” and direct sow warm season bush beans over top of the chopped fava carcasses. For readers in colder climates, a third round of fava cover crop will take you to May. By cover cropping, and “chopping and dropping” 2 to 3 times depending on your climate, you can foster a quickly improving soil tithe to prepare your soil for the following warm season.
Joshua Burman Thayer is a landscape designer and permaculture consultant with Native Sun Gardens. He is the Urban Agriculture Supervisor for Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation in San Francisco, Calif. Find him at Native Sun Gardens and read his other MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.